Blow-up tube person holding female symbol.

Businesses led by and marketed to women are multiplying. Women-only workspaces, professional chat groups, fitness, networking and social clubs abound in cities across Canada—there is even an all-female tattoo shop in Toronto. (Illustration by Oliver Munday)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

What a woman wants

Female-friendly businesses are popping up across Canada. Are they empowering women or patronizing them?

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When I was a young woman shopping for my first car, I brought my father along to help navigate the bargaining process. I knew the first quote would be too high, but I lacked the confidence to barter without backup. I did, however, expect to test-drive the car. The salesman was about my age and completely tone-deaf. Although we told him I was the one buying the car, he spoke directly to my father as he answered my questions. When it came time for the test drive, he handed Dad the keys, telling him he’d have to drive because the car had a standard transmission. I’d been driving standard for years, and this was the final insult. I resolved right then to buy the same car somewhere else.

That was a few decades ago. You’d expect today’s sales personnel to be better trained and more sensitive to the needs of all clients: men, women and everyone in between. So why, in 2018, are there still new businesses, like car and bike repair shops that were once the exclusive domain of men, being marketed specifically to women? It suggests that women still feel uncomfortable or ripped off doing business in an all-male environment. But do these female-friendly businesses empower or patronize the women they seek to serve? And how can it be a good business proposition to risk alienating half of consumers who happen to be men?

A 2009 Harvard Business Review paper called “The Female Economy” reported that despite the immense buying power of women, many found it difficult to find pants that fit, a healthy meal, or a financial advisor who isn’t condescending. “Companies continue to offer them poorly conceived products and services and outdated marketing narratives that promote female stereotypes.”

We’ve all seen such examples. When outgoing PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi told Freakonomics Radio her company was developing a chip better suited to the delicate sensibilities of women who don’t like the loud crunching sound and the orange residue Doritos leave on your fingers, Twitter lit up and PepsiCo quickly backtracked. “We already have Doritos for women—they’re called Doritos, and they’re loved by millions.” I bet Nooyi had no end of product research backing her assertion that women find the orange colouring annoying. But tone is everything, and Nooyi missed the mark. 

Women-only workspaces, professional chat groups, fitness, networking and social clubs abound in cities across Canada.

The same fate befell BrewDog, a Scottish craft beer purveyor that fell into the trap of “pink it and shrink it” marketing. For International Women’s Day, the brewery released a version of its Punk IPA called “Pink IPA”; it had a pink label and the slogan “Beer for Girls,” and 20 per cent of sales were donated to causes that fight gender inequality. BrewDog thought its customers would appreciate the irony. Instead, men and women alike slammed the company’s marketing ploy as cheap and patronizing. 

And yet, businesses led by and marketed to women are multiplying. Women-only workspaces, professional chat groups, fitness, networking and social clubs abound in cities across Canada—there is even an all-female tattoo shop in Toronto.

Three years ago, Andrea Smith opened Sidesaddle, a bicycle shop in East Vancouver geared primarily to women. She chose her motto carefully: Women Focused, Everyone Welcome. All but one of her staff are women and their mandate is to make a middle-aged woman with big thighs feel as comfortable as a spandex-encased lad with the body mass index of a greyhound. Her mechanics know their stuff but lay off the jargon if it’s obvious the client isn’t interested or doesn’t care. 

In North Vancouver, sports car mechanic Leah Gillanders opened Leah’s Automotive with the goal of making men and women feel equally welcome. It has a spotless waiting area and washroom. Her male customers are loyal and jokingly grumble about being cut out of the know-your-car courses she offers to women.

It can be a good strategy to cater to one segment of the population whose needs are not met elsewhere.

No business can win over every consumer, says Darren Dahl, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. So, it can be a good strategy to cater to one segment of the population whose needs are not met elsewhere. Sometimes, that unmet need crosses gender lines, he says. Smith and Gillanders estimate 40 to 50 per cent of their customers are men who trust the competency of female entrepreneurs and like the low-pressure, service-oriented operating style. It turns out a lot of men feel just as uncomfortable as women in a gym full of testosterone-fuelled power lifters.

Still, what makes Smith’s and Gillanders’ businesses a success among women—and men—when Lady Doritos and pink pints flopped? Their efforts were driven by respect for women, not just women’s wallets. Both Smith and Gillanders have mentored female employees and shared their expertise with other women through workshops and classes. Their shops are busy, suggesting the female focus is both an enlightened approach and a savvy business strategy.

I haven’t bought a car in a long time. But if I were in the market, I might consider Precision Hyundai, a car dealer in Calgary that has actively recruited women to work in every facet of its business. Its website encourages female clients to request help from a cast of female staffers, if it would make them feel more comfortable. The dealership’s very existence makes me think that even in 2018, there must still be salespeople out there tossing the keys to Dad.